A senior Turkish diplomat says the US in the past years has changed its approach towards Syria crisis for so many times that Ankara is now “a bit puzzled” on what Washington’s real policy and strategy is, particularly regarding the Syrian armed opposition groups.
In an exclusive interview with the Etemad daily newspaper, Turkish Ambassador to Tehran Reza Hakan Tekin has discussed a range of issues, from Turkey’s stance towards the Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence to the US policies on the Syria crisis and armed opposition groups in the Arab country.
The Turkish ambassador gave the interview to Etemad’s Sara Massoumi on July 23. The first part of the interview was earlier published by IFP News.
What follows is the second part of his remarks:
In recent years, Turkey has backed the Iraqi Kurdistan politically and militarily, so much so that the central government in Baghdad had to complain, which in turn led into tensions between the two countries. The Iraqi Kurdistan is preparing for an independence referendum in September. Do you see its independence a national security threat for Turkey? What kind of talks have you had with Kurdish officials to stop the referendum?
We do have in fact extensive contacts with the KRG, Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq. But when they made that announcement, we both showed our reaction publicly by making statements and also by talking to them. Our policy in the region is to preserve the territorial integrity of all countries in our region. When we start redrawing borders, you will never know where it’ll end up. Besides, it will further complicate the existing problems. That is our main concern. Iraq and Syria, two important regional countries, which we share over 1300 kilometers of borders with, and these two countries are in deep instability, conflict for many years which is also affecting our national security. What we want both in Iraq and Syria is unified governments which take care of and satisfy all the legitimate aspirations of their own people, with all the sects, ethnic groups and all political thoughts. That is what we want. And for the KRG, we don’t believe secession from Iraq would help the situation. We want Iraqi constitution to be abided by. There are many other things which can be said about that decision, but we believe especially when we’re dealing with a lot of problems in the region, fighting terrorism, instability, inner conflicts and so on, adding to all this the Kurdish independence issue in Iraq could further inflame the existing problems. That’s why we are against it. And we told it very clearly to them.
If that referendum leads to Kurdistan Independence, do you consider it as a threat to affect the Kurdish minority in Turkey too?
This is another country. We don’t think that it will happen, and we don’t think that it should happen. Of course, you cannot resist the will of the people. So if a country’s people decide on their future, we have to respect that. But the problem here is this decision should be taken by the consent of the whole of the population, or at least by the overwhelming majority of the population, especially if it is about radical measures like secession. And in Iraq when we look at that, nobody wants Iraq to be divided except the Kurds. So that is a fundamental problem of the situation. You know that there are sizable Kurdish population in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the biggest community in our country, and they may have some affinity or tribal links among themselves, but at the end of the day they are citizens of different countries. And we have our own system, our Kurds enjoy their democratic rights, fundamental freedoms. We have of course some problems in this regard mainly due to the terrorist activity of PKK in the last forty years. But our government, our state, is doing its best both to fight and defeat PKK as well as to improve the conditions of all our citizens including our Kurdish compatriots.
The US has just announced it would end arming the Syrian opposition groups. Turkey, some Arab states, and the US have been advocating the arming of opposition in the past seven years. How do you evaluate the US’ new approach?
The US’ approach is really sometimes not easy to understand. There is not much of a consistency and there is not much of a continuity when you look at US policies in the last few years towards Syria. So we are like many others around the world a bit puzzled on what is the real policy, real strategy of the US. When you look at the steps they take on the ground, like arming, especially with heavy arms, the PKK branch of Syria PYD/YPG, because they believe it’s the only group that can fight ISIS, which is nonsense in our opinion. And we had a lot of talks with the US on this issue. And just recently it was acknowledged by a US general, you might have heard about it, I think yesterday. Answering a question about the US links with the Syrian PYD/YPG group, he said that there was a problem with their link with PKK, so they advised them to change their name, and that’s how he said Syrian Democratic Forces, the so-called umbrella group, was established. Basically this is also a PKK-controlled group, and he acknowledged that this name was given by their own advice in order not to show that it has links with the PKK. This is ridiculous. So we have a lot of differences with the United States on this issue. But at the same time United States is our ally since many decades. We have extensive relations, including in the military field with the United States. So we keep telling them how wrong some policies they pursue, some steps they take in the region, and how it would further complicate the situation.
Do you consider this new decision as a green light to Russia?
When you look at the last few years, what’s going on in Syria, you may make your own conclusions. I mean this is one of the fundamental principles of international relations, when there is a vacuum there will always be some other power to fill that vacuum.
Do you think this new strategy will give Bashar Assad more power and maybe it’s a sign which means US accepts the presence of Bashar Assad?
He may seem to be more confident than before and when you hear some remarks of some western leaders like Macron or even some US officials that it’s not a priority for them to topple Assad and so on, he may feel that. But I think these are wrong thoughts because after all that has been going on in Syria, nobody with a clear sense of mind would think that Syria can be ruled in the same way as before, and just continue as if nothing happened and Bashar al-Assad continues to rule the country. This will not work. This would also be an affront to the Syrian people. That’s why we think a real and meaningful transition is necessary, the first step for a lasting peace, conciliation in Syria. How can you expect a big chunk of the Syrian population, the majority of the Syrian population actually, to trust the system when the most powerful person who was basically responsible of all that has been lived through in the last six or seven years of war to continue in his position?
Well the Syrian war is 7 years old now and still we don’t have any strong and unified opposition there. Don’t you think it’s time to accept the realities on the ground?
This is a really unfair evaluation. What meaningful support has been given to the opposition? What were they provided with?
By meaningful support you mean politically or militarily?
Both militarily and politically. Politically is more important I think.
They have the whole world support in all these years.
It was mainly support without being backed by meaningful action. If you only make statements without backing it up it does not work. You know the carrot and stick approach. That is one of the fundamentals of international policies. Remember Obama. He said the use of chemical weapons was a red-line. What happened after Assad used chemical weapons? He just took a step back. So you cannot say that, it’s just one simple but a very brutal example of international approach towards Syria. What can you expect from the opposition? They’re put in a position, at the mercy of a brutal government.
The opposition has been enjoying political statement and military equipment. So why couldn’t they make even a qualified union? They have the support of all regional players and international ones.
The nature of the support is quite different. I mean you see Russia and Iran on the ground. You don’t see the others on the ground.
So what about thousands of dollars of weapons they received in all these years?
Look. There is an existing national army, with all its inventory of heavy weapons and everything. And then there is a variety of groups which do not have a unified structure, they receive some occasional support let’s say from certain countries. So this is not an even fight. But despite these facts, we have to acknowledge that against a very powerful army with all these heavy weapons, structure, and intelligence strength plus the on-ground support of a big country like Russia as well as Iran and some other militias coming from some other countries on the side of the regime forces and then you have this. So despite these imbalances, I think we have to acknowledge that the opposition, despite also the lack of political support they have resisted and continue to resist. You mentioned that all the world support them except a few countries, but this support is meaningless when you don’t show something in behind. No sanctions, no nothing…
Well different sanctions are imposed on Syrian government in these years.
It does not have an effect. When you cannot isolate a regime, it does not mean anything.
So you mean the whole world couldn’t isolate Bashar Assad just because of Russia and Iran?
There was not a unified approach; we cannot say that it was the whole world and Assad. This is not the case. Compare the policies of the United States and Russia. There are a lot of differences.
US-Turkey relations were not in really good terms under the Obama administration and the sides frequently criticized each other. How satisfied are you with the Trump administration?
We had a lot of disappointments with the Obama administration; despite we worked closely with them. With Trump, it’s still early to tell I should say, because although it has been almost now seven months since Trump started his presidency, it seems they have not yet formulated an overall policy, a strategy, both towards the region and on some other issues. So they are still like in a transition period. We hope that it would be better but we have to wait and see. It’s still early to say that we are satisfied or we are not.
In contrast with what Trump said during his presidential campaign, he has boosted the United States’ military and political role in our region. In Syria for instance, we have seen direct military interference and arms deals suspended under the Obama administration are being resumed. Iran is among countries that believe regional players should resolve regional issues and oppose the US military involvement in the region. How does Turkey view this military involvement?
Look, the United States is the most powerful country in the world and we believe that the US should have an involvement, a role, in our region along with the regional countries. But that role should be constructive, that role should be clear-cut, and that role should not be in a way that it imposes its policies on the regional countries, but rather in a partnership nature. Because we need that. If the US withdraws itself, we don’t believe that we’ll have a better environment in the region.
Don’t you think that their presence affects the power balance in the region in a negative way? For example they sold thousands of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia but at the same time imposed sanctions on Iran because of a simple defensive missile test?
We are not for increased armament in the region. Those billions of dollars should be spent in a much better way. I mean, look at our region. Beside all this instability and all this bloodshed, there is also a lot of poverty, lack of education, lack of basic needs for a big chunk of population in our region. So we need those resources to be spent for the people of our countries. But then of course, there is the other reality of you know tensions, perceptions, threat perceptions. So, some countries which may have legitimate concerns about what’s going on in the region may feel the need to strengthen their army because they don’t want to be run over by some other country or some other power. So, we have to put all these things in context. In an ideal world of course there will be zero budgets on armament with all money on these economic, cultural and social projects. But unfortunately, we are not living in an ideal world.
The third and final part of the interview will be published soon …